We are pleased to share AVI CHAI Program Officer Dr. Michael Berger’s address to the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) alumni retreat currently underway in Florida. DSLTI, an AVI CHAI grantee, is a program of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS. To date, nine DSLTI cohorts, including the one currently running, have included a total of 116 fellows. Read more about DSLTI here.
We are ending Chanukah, which in many ways is a unique holiday. In general, we try to beautify the performance of every mitzvah, what’s called “hiddur mitzvah.” Thus, we try and get an especially beautiful Etrog, purchase or make pretty challah covers or seder plates – all to adorn the mitzvah and make it look prettier. However, only Chanukah lights has that requirement “built in,” as it were – the Talmud famously records three levels of the mitzvah:
1) At the most basic level, we light one candle per household.
2) The next level, called “mehadrin” – beautifying it – is that there be a candle for each member of the household.
3) The highest level, called ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin,’ is to have the number of lights change each night. Beit Shammai has us starting off strong with 8 and then declining down to 1, whereas Beit Hillel has us starting more modestly with one and increasing to 8.
Why did the Rabbis institute this tri-level performance?
I’m sure there are many answers, but I think one possible explanation lies in the nature of the basic mitzvah. If we examine the initial level – the mitzvah in its simplest form, we notice another oddity: the obligation is incumbent on the household. In contrast, most mitzvot are on each adult Jew: we are EACH required to eat matzah at the seder, EVERY ONE of us must hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Megillat Ester on Purim. But when it comes to Chanukah, the obligation seems to be on the household: ner ish u-veito. Why? Because the Rabbis understood that the threat that the Maccabees fought against was not so much over sovereignty, but over Greek culture. In many ways, Judaism was not being overrun by Greek soldiers, but by Greek beliefs, Greek attitudes, Greek priorities. Certainly by the time of the tannaim, it was clear that Jews were going to be a minority within Greco-Roman culture for a long time to come. A life according to the Torah, with God at the center rather than man, yet with man able to improve the world rather than be subject to fickle fate – this is what the Rabbis knew would be countercultural for a long time. Therefore, they conceived of a mitzvah that would focus on the household, that which encases the Jewish family that grows together under a single roof and passes on core values. Lighting even one candle – the light of Torah and Jewish values – in the midst of the darkness around them is what we are called upon to do at this time.
However, that’s the minimum. Creating that kind of household, against the stream of the world around us, is already a major accomplishment. But the Rabbis said: strive for more. Don’t content yourself with a Jewish household with one candle. Try and light a candle for each member of your household – parents and children, maybe even grandparents and grandchildren. The goal is not to have everyone share a single light, or live by the light of a single candle. Our goal is that everyone in the household should be able to light his or her own menorah, his or her own light of Torah. Imagine the beauty of such a household, where EVERYONE has a candle that pierces the darkness. How impressive a home that is to come in to, and observe the brightness!
But the Rabbis said – “that’s not enough. Aim higher.” It’s wonderful that everyone lights a candle, but no one should content herself or himself with just one candle. The House of Hillel says: increase the light every night. Add to it. Don’t be satisfied with the minimum. If you can build a household that not only has a light, that not only has a light for each person, but that is actually filled with individuals who ADD to their menorah every night, whose Judaism grows constantly – then THAT will be the ultimate victory, that will ensure that Judaism and Torah values endure in the face of Greek society and values, and even way past it.
In many ways, that is how AVI CHAI sees the day school leader – how we see YOU. You are there to make sure that in your houses, in your schools, the light of Jewish values shines brightly. However, the goal is not that these values sit in the mission, or in the curriculum, or in the faculty. The aim is to have the light in each and every child – that each student in your charge is a candle waiting to be lit, who will go out into the darkness and illuminate it with Jewish commitments and values. I think we all agree that would be a truly excellent school. However, we don’t want you to stop there – we want you to stretch to the top of the ladder, to beautify the mitzvah to the UTMOST by aiming high and having each child not light only one candle, but continue lighting more and more candles as she or he grows up! Think about what that would like! Your school of 60, 100, 300 students, on the 8th day – and ALUMNI! – all together they will literally light up the world!
That, in a word, is AVI CHAI’s prayer and our blessing to you as Chanukah closes – that you use the incredible gift of DSLTI to lead your schools, your “households,” in such a Jewish way not only to light a single candle, not only to light as many candles as students, but to turn each and every student into a menorah that burns more brightly every night, while they’re in your schools but also thereafter. If you are able to create and lead such schools, then the future of American Jewry will be equally bright.
Chag sameach and much hatzlahah/good luck in your holy work.